Looking Beyond Glory With Hari Jones

I like the idea behind this short film.  Young African-American woman gets an A on an essay she wrote about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry after having viewed the movie, Glory.  Her adviser suggests that she visit the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. to talk with curator Hari Jones.  The two walk through the exhibit to address some of the inaccuracies in the movie.

So why does this movie, and Hari Jones specifically, feel a need to lash out against Gary Gallagher?  Gallagher offers extensive commentary of the movie’s historical basis in Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War.  I suspect that Jones knows this, which makes his comment all the more bizarre.  Jones strikes me as a knowledgeable and passionate historian.  Perhaps this script was written by someone else.  I fear that the result, including the embracing of the self-emancipation thesis without any reference to the Union army and other factors, is as much a distortion as Glory.

The other thing that struck me as awkward was the pointing out that you will not find any quotes from historians on the exhibit panels.  According to Jones, if you weren’t there than your words will not appear.   Fair enough, but it is worth pointing out that their exhibit is built on the backs of decades of careful research on the black experience during the war from professional historians, including Gary Gallagher.

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21 thoughts on “Looking Beyond Glory With Hari Jones

  1. Andy Hall

    Hari Jones is an interesting guy. He’s argued forcefully against the celebration of Juneteenth, because he sees that as reinforcing the notion that emancipation was a gift, bestowed on enslaved persons by the (white) Federal government and the Union Army. It’s a narrative, he feels, that overlooks the role that African Americans themselves played in ways large and small in emancipating themselves in many cases. He sees Juneteenth as a narrative that reinforces the notion of enslaved persons being helpless, non-actors in determining their own destiny.

    There’s a lot of value in his position, which I would expect from someone in his position. But he sometimes goes out of his way personally to slam other scholars with whom he has a legitimate disagreement. His observation about Gary Gallagher makes for dramatic effect, but it does not enhance the merits of his own case.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I can certainly see why he might take issue with Gallagher’s interpretation of emancipation and the self-emancipation position specifically, but this is no way to voice that concern. Gallagher doesn’t deny that the self-emancipation thesis has not functioned as an important corrective to our understanding of this dynamic process, just that it is incomplete.

      Your comment reminds me of a news item out of Gettysburg College featuring historian Scott Hancock.

      Reply
      1. Brad

        I have read about self-emancipation in a couple of places, one of them being (I believe) Donald Shaffer’s Civil War Emancipation (maybe in some of the comments). As enunciated in this video the position seems to be that it was all self-emancipation and therefore the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t matter. That may be overstating it but it did matter. This kind of position seems to reflect a view that “we did it ourself and we didn’t need any white person to make us free,” sort of a defensive reaction that whites helped blacks to become free. I just don’t buy the thesis that slaves could have become free without the assistance of others.

        The one good thing I liked about the video was the emphasis on go to the source and don’t necessarily rely on what others tell you what happened.

        Reply
        1. Peter

          I think something else to consider is that “slave” defines a particular type of property as defined within the laws of the United States. Some people use “enslaved African American” rather than “slave,” because the longer term recognizes their humanity rather than defining their entire existence as a particular kind of property while still acknowledging the particularities of that legal definition. With that in mind, attaining full emancipation is not possible without a legal change (either emancipation within the framework of the law or extinguishing the legal regiment altogether). To put things differently, one should not conflate personal freedom with emancipation; just because an enslaved person escapes their master and enjoys freedom, it does not follow that they are therefore emancipated (unless they can escape to an area where there is no legal slavery).

          Reply
          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            Hi Peter. Really nice to hear from you and I hope all is well in C-Ville. You make a really important point here and one that reminds us of Lincoln’s crucial role in the emancipation process.

            Reply
  2. Pat Young

    I don’t know if the 54th had an Irish drill instructor, but more than half-a-century ago Bell Wiley noted the role of immigrants the in training volunteer soldiers. This was not a matter of intelligence, it was due to experience. Roughly half the soldiers in the Regular Army in the late 1850s were immigrants. This meant that immigrants were proportionally three times as likely as native-born to have served in the Regulars. In addition, immigrants were much more likely to have served in European armies, with many Germans having performed mandatory military service. Irish professional soldiers came to the US with experience in the British, French, Spanish and Papal armies.

    The memory of these men, and the vital role they played in forging the Union army, has been lost.

    Robert Gould Shaw did express contempt for the Irish, so it is perhaps ironic that his famous image was sculpted by an Irish immigrant.

    Reply
      1. Pat Young

        Hey smart alack, here is a genuine Buster Kilrain moment from John Michael Priest’s Antietam:

        “Captain Oliver W. Holmes Jr. saw an Irishman in G Company face rearward and drop to his knee to shoot. The captain screamed at the man, but he continued to take aim and fire. “You damned fool” Holmes shrieked as he struck the man with the flat of his sword…”

        What Holmes did not realize was that the soldier was firing at Confederates who had gotten in behind his position. Like Buster, who always saw the Confederates before his Yankee officers did, this soldier also had the gift of the little people or whatever…

        Reply
    1. London John

      I think the role of immigrants in the Union army tends to be overstated. McPherson established that immigrants were less likely to serve than the American-born. Some of the points you make about previous military experience are doubtful:
      The ineffectiveness of the German Brigade is legendary. Both its commanders, Von Gilsa and Sigel, had been officers in the armies of German states (they fought on opposite sides in 1848) and both were utterly useless generals; either could have qualified as the Union’s own real-life Jubilation T. Cornpone.

      Do you know that Irish veterans of the British army were involved in significant numbers? Although there were large numbers of immigrants from both Great Britain and Ireland in the US, and thousands of men went directly from both countries to fight in the Civil War, I’ve never read about British army veterans playing much of a role. This seems surprising; Britain had just had a fairly belligerent decade, and one might think would be a good source of soldiers with combat experience. The explanation I can think of is that the British army had 20-year enlistments at the end of which veterans got a pension and gratuity which meant they didn’t need to go and fight again.
      For a mid-19th century Irishman, joining the British army and emigrating were alternatives, not things to be done one after the other. The claim that Ireland supplied trained soldiers to the Union is actually the reverse of the truth; it’s rather well-known that Irish patriots saw the Civil War as an opportunity for Irishmen to get military training and combat experience, and hoped they’d come back to spearhead the next rising.

      Reply
      1. Pat Young

        1. The role of immigrants in the Civil War is rarely explored in general works on the war. Look in the indexes of of general works on the subject for confirmation. How you can say that role is overstated when it is more typically ignored is beyond me.
        2. My comment was on the role of immigrants as drill instructors, not on whether Sigel was a good general.

        Reply
        1. Bryan Cheeseboro

          I seem to recall having read somewhere that the real 54th was drilled by Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass.

          I think the drill sergeant in the movie was put there to further represent the racism the soldiers had to deal with. In African-American war movies, the “enemy” is not really the Confederates, the Germans or the Japanese- it’s racism.

          Reply
  3. Brad

    One last question which I forgot to mention. In the video he mentioned that 54th Mass was the most literate of all Union regiments. Is that correct. I wonder how one quantifies the staement.

    Reply
  4. Bryan Cheeseboro

    I agree with Hari Jones that to call “Glory” a movie “perfectly aligned with the historical evidence” of the African-Americans Civil War experience is a mistake. And yes, the film is full of inaccuracies, distortions and falsehoods. And some people have even complained that a white man (Matthew Broderick) ended up being the star of a Black history movie (see link attached- it’s “Cracked” magazine, so consider the source).

    http://www.cracked.com/article/178_the-5-most-unintentionally-racist-movies-about-racism/

    Having said all of that, I would also like to say that I consider “Glory” perhaps one of the most important, if not THE most important Civil War movies made to date. It came out at a time when most Americans were unaware that Black men had fought for the Union (and yes, I do believe this movie was a big step in forwarding the Black Confederate Myth) and also made people aware, to some degree, of the free Black population in the United States. And I believe the movie was a major catalyst in the creation of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum.
    I learned, after watching the film, that the real 54th Massachusetts was a regiment comprised mostly of Northern, free-born African Americans, like the educated, highly literate character of Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) as opposed to the portrayal of a regiment of runaway slaves like Trip (Denzel Washington). It would have been nice to see the movie with this accurate portrayal instead of basing it around fictional characters like those mentioned. It would have been nice to use the real stories of men like Frederick Douglass’s two sons, Lewis and Charles, Peter Voglesang, William Carney and others. But with an American public that knew nothing about Blacks fighting in the Civil War at all PLUS not knowing anything about the free Northern Black population of the Civil War Era, I am convinced that if the movie had been more accurate- i.e., more Thomas than Trip- people would have rejected it as revisionist political correctness. I think many people would have found the lack of the depiction of slavery confusing and. Indeed, some people might have called it racist for NOT depicting slavery. I’m always for accurate history but I believe such a film would have flopped at the box office. What’s more, I wonder if an all-African-American cast would have worked as a mainstream movie in 1989. Nice if it would have, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t have gone mainstream and might have ended up a low-budget, made-for-TV movie.

    Given the circumstances, I think Glory did the best it could with what it had to work with. And as we’ve discussed before, entertainment films are first about making money before they are about history. I just hope Glory will not be the last film on African-American soldiers in the Civil War. And I don’t mean some silly movie about Black Confederate soldiers.

    I really like Gary Gallagher as a historian. If he got the story with Glory wrong, too bad for him. But I appreciate the other things he’s done. Anyone with the wisdom to say that southern secession and Confederate war was about White supremacy over Black slavery and inferiority gets an “A” in my book.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I agree with Hari Jones that to call “Glory” a movie “perfectly aligned with the historical evidence” of the African-Americans Civil War experience is a mistake. And yes, the film is full of inaccuracies, distortions and falsehoods.

      I’ve been writing about the movie on this blog for the past few years and have pointed out places where the movie deviates from the historical record.

      It would have been nice to see the movie with this accurate portrayal instead of basing it around fictional characters like those mentioned.

      The mistake is to expect Hollywood to deliver history. Sometimes they do it around historical subjects and themes and at times they do it well. If you want history, go elsewhere.

      I really like Gary Gallagher as a historian. If he got the story with Glory wrong, too bad for him.

      The problem is he didn’t. Pick up his book on Hollywood movies and you can see for yourself. Jones’s comment was nothing more than a cheap shot.

      Reply
  5. William Richardson

    Didn’t the 54th Massachusetts take part in the burning of Darien, Georgia ? a small Southern town, undefended and of no military importance ?

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  6. Hari Jones

    In the “Civil War Times,” June 2009, Gary Gallagher wrote that the movie “Glory” was “almost perfectly aligned with the historical evidence.” If he didn’t mean that, I wish he hadn’t written it. But the fact is that his statement in that article was not even almost accurate according to the primary sources.

    Next, it is not true that our “exhibit is built on the backs of decades of careful research on the black experience during the war from professional historians, including Gary Gallagher.” In the ten years of research that went into this exhibit, I intentionally did not consult the works of such scholars. I prefer primary sources. The only 20th century scholar that our exhibit was “almost” built on the back of was Benjamin Quarrels. Our exhibit was actually built on the backs of archivists and librarians at the Library of Congress and National Archives who have made easily accessible many primary sources. If, however, I had read William Dobak’s book “Freedom by the Sword” before developing and writing the exhibit, I would have jumped on his back. This work is absolutely outstanding scholarship. He displays a good intellect and great integrity in the use of primary sources.

    This short film, of course, does not allow you to understand much about the integrity of my scholarship. My purpose was simply to admonish young scholars not to simply regurgitate the words of esteemed scholars but to examine the primary sources for themselves. A careful reading of or listening to my lectures will allow you to discover that I understand the Emancipation Proclamation to be “a practical war measure” to preserve the Union and that African Americans by contributing to the Union war effort ultimately acted as agents in their self emancipation. To infer that I argue that they did it without the help of the Union Army and Navy they were members of is to reduce complex relationships to a simple either “A” or “B” analysis. I am certainly not guiltily of such simplicity. I love and seek complexity, and understand by personal experience how military teamwork and combined arms bring military victory. Indeed, my argument is that this combined arms team has been presented in popular scholarship for almost a century without a major part of the team accurately portrayed, and thus their contributions not accurately reported.

    Finally, according to my informed analysis, Lincoln was an outstanding commander-in-chief who understood in 1863 that African descent soldiers were “a resource which if vigourously [sic] applied now, will soon close the contest.” Our exhibit emphasizes, unlike the scholars you falsely accused us building our exhibit on the backs of, the importance of Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League (4Ls) also known as the Loyal League. This secret network comprised of persons of African descent who “hand banded themselves together to further the cause of freedom” before the Civil War sought to end slavery in league with the Constitution and developed alliances during the war with pro-slavery Unionists like Benjamin Butler to accomplish that goal. General Grant declared that “by arming the negroes, we have added a powerfully ally.” He marched on to victory with such Americans on his combined arms team, and it is on the backs of those Americans of African descent that our exhibit was built.

    Reply
  7. Hari Jones

    Noticed two typos in last paragraph after submitted. Resubmitting last paragraph only.

    Finally, according to my informed analysis, Lincoln was an outstanding commander-in-chief who understood in 1863 that African descent soldiers were “a resource which if vigourously [sic] applied now, will soon close the contest.” Our exhibit emphasizes, unlike the scholars you falsely accused us of building our exhibit on the backs of, the importance of Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League (4Ls) also known as the Loyal League. This secret network comprised of persons of African descent who “had banded themselves together to further the cause of freedom” before the Civil War sought to end slavery in league with the Constitution and developed alliances during the war with pro-slavery Unionists like Benjamin Butler to accomplish that goal. General Grant declared that “by arming the negroes, we have added a powerfully ally.” He marched on to victory with such Americans on his combined arms team, and it is on the backs of those Americans of African descent that our exhibit was built.

    Reply

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